Kathy MacMillan hooked the index finger of her right hand around her left thumb. The index finger of her left hand wiggled freely, as if it was trying to escape.
In the shade of a few oak trees in a Sykesville park, she explained to 30 children how Goldilocks escaped from the three bears' house - in sign language.
The kids quickly got the hang of forming the sign for "running," but the moms in the back were having a bit more trouble.
"It's hard," Susan Stephey said to a fellow mother, who was also struggling with the maneuver. "I can't do it either."
The children and their families, none of whom is deaf, came to Sykesville's Millard Cooper Park yesterday for the second session of "Stories in the Park," part of an annual statewide effort to show young Marylanders that reading can be fun. Libraries throughout Maryland will hold weekly events through August on topics designed to spark curiosity and generate interest in reading - and teach a few important social lessons.
More than 160,000 children joined the programs across the state last year, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Education. Of those, 13,000 signed up in Carroll County, where the program this year includes appearances from children's book characters such as Clifford the Big Red Dog, Corky the Penguin and Curious George, along with program mascot Sneaks the Cat.
Organizers hope "Sign Language Fun" will give children an insight into the culture of Maryland's roughly 575,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing residents, the most per capita of any state, according to the Maryland Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
For MacMillan, 28, reciting Goldilocks and teaching children the signs for their favorite foods was more than just a fun activity for a hot summer's day.
She has devoted the past few years to helping deaf children with reading and to helping hearing children learn sign language. MacMillan said she decided to learn sign language after meeting a deaf library patron while working at the Eldersburg branch of the Carroll County Public Library.
She took four years of sometimes grueling classes at the Community College of Baltimore County at Catonsville.
"You feel like your eyes are crossed by the end of it," she said of sign language class.
But she was determined to communicate directly with deaf library patrons - however rare their visits to the library - rather than having to exchange notes with them.
"If I can't communicate with them, I can't help them," she said.
After mastering the language, she left her full-time job at the Eldersburg library to become a librarian at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Columbia.
At the park yesterday, MacMillan led the children - along with 23 adults in the audience - through a spirited rendition of "The Three Little Bears." On a small blackboard, she pinned drawings of the three bears, porridge bowls and the different-sized beds in which Goldilocks slept while the bears were away.
"Now which bed is this?" she asked the children, pointing to the father bear's bed.
"The big bed," shouted 30 youngsters.
"Show me, don't tell me," MacMillan said, feigning exasperation. "Show me in sign language."
The children obliged, extending their arms outward with elbows still slightly bent, and MacMillan went on with the story.
Once Goldilocks had escaped and the story had ended, the children moved to nearby park benches in the shade, where they all folded down the middle and ring fingers of a paper hand to make the sign for "love."
"This means `I love you,'" MacMillan told the children. "It's a great sign."
After the event, the children and their parents checked out books and videotapes on sign language from the park.
Margaret Gardner of Sykesville borrowed Moses Goes to School - about a child's experience at a school for the deaf - and the videotape Say, Sing, Sign for her grandchildren, Angela and Mason Banner, ages 7 and 4.
Angela said she is determined to learn sign language this summer and thinks that with the help of the videotape, she can do it "if I work at it."
Seven-year-old Devon Nickoles of Sykesville has been pining to learn sign language all year, said Ashley Nickoles, her mother. Devon's 11-year-old neighbor is deaf.
Devon said she was happy to learn one particular sign. One index finger is interlocked with the other, then both hands are rotated and the fingers are interlocked in the opposite direction.
The sign means "friend."